To cite this article: Paquette, Lucy. “Tissot’s Textures.” The Hammock. https://thehammocknovel.wordpress.com/2019/09/12/tissots-textures/. <Date viewed.>
James Tissot’s oil paintings emanate the luxury of Second Empire France and Victorian life, in part by his subject matter and perhaps even more by his skill in realistically depicting texture. Considered superficial by some for his ability to render fabrics in great detail, Tissot was masterful in his ability to recreate on canvas the tactile experience of materials ranging from silk to stone. Often, it’s Tissot’s characteristic juxtaposition of a variety of contrasting textures that produces the sense of opulence in his pictures.
Here are several paintings in which Tissot brilliantly brought surfaces to sumptuous life.
In The Snack, Tissot created multiple layers of textures. The subject, a woman richly dressed in a layered ensemble featuring a crisp, knife-pleated underskirt and edging of soft fur, stands in the middle ground of the picture space. The background comprises tapestries and velvety draperies and, even farther back in the space, the airy, lush greenery in the conservatory. On the satiny wood floor stands a hefty carved wooden table whose polished top holds a crystal wine decanter topped by a shimmering silver repoussé lid, and a Chinese porcelain vase carried upward by a feathery dried floral arrangement. A heavy cloth napkin, cleverly seeming within our grasp, accents the hard surfaces.
The Convalescent is a riot of contrasting textures: in the background there are the fluted cast-iron columns of Tissot’s garden colonnade, the weathered stone tree pots and pond rim, and the gnarled, weighty tree trunk, interspersed with the lacy branches of the willows and hickory trees which flutter over the glassy water. In the foreground, softly draped gowns, warm shawls, and yielding cushions play over the intricate wicker chairs and the undulating carpet. The tea-table provides a vignette of contrasting textures of porcelain, silver, and cake; in fact, each section of the painting is a celebration of varied materials we long to touch.
In Waiting for the Train (Willesden Junction), the worn leather baggage greets us; we can almost run our fingers over its comfortable smoothness. Behind it stands the painting’s subject, a woman sporting an array of textures, from her heavy gown to her wool traveling blanket, leather bag, profuse bouquet of flowers, well-thumbed book, metal-tipped umbrella, and straw boater. The softer textures are juxtaposed against the hard tiled platform with its jagged-edged roof line, the metal of the rubbish bin, and the glass lantern, all against the background of the iron train tracks, the iron, glass and steel of the station, and in the distance, two train engines. These solid surfaces are softened by the forms of the passengers to the right and left of the central figure as well as, in the far background, the billowing forms of the trees and the great puffs of steam from the engines.
In A Widow, Tissot presents a seemingly decorous subject amid a jumble of textures that beckon us to step onto the sandy ground of the scene. The black shape of the central figure’s full-skirted gown is mitigated by its sheer, silk chiffon outer layer. While the tea-table would be more predictably placed at the woman’s left, the soft and rounded mass of flowers on the open-shelved table at her side further lightens the black gown. Since the narrative component of the picture takes place in the foreground, and the hazy background comprises a great deal of the image, Tissot has defined and enlivened the middle ground with a detailed still-life on the tea-table. Crystal wine decanters and glasses, a glossy Chinese porcelain biscuit jar, and a plate of tempting pastries contrast with the soft forms throughout the painting.
At the Rifle Range shows Tissot at his finest: the woman, sporting a fur-trimmed, patterned jacket and overskirt, is juxtaposed against luxuriant, rippling shrubbery and an imposing brick garden wall with its wide pillars. The grass below is fine and soft, the metal gun barrels substantial. The wooden table, posts and trellis provide a transition between the hard and soft surfaces. The palpable sense of luxury and privilege in this image is largely due to the woman’s lavish costume, and Tissot makes her a gem by placing her in this richly textured setting.
In Les Adieux, Tissot showcases his expertise painting stone, brick, vegetation, fabric, metal and even the delicate lace mitts of the woman and supple leather gloves of the man. The iron fence, the ivy climbing up the brick wall, the rough, stained stone, and the dead, dry leaves at the woman’s feet are exceptionally convincing in their tangible three-dimensionality.
As we head into autumn and gather the favorite materials, books, and mementos we take comfort in, we can feel Tissot’s evident delight in rendering tactile forms and textures on a two-dimensional canvas, as captured in his Still Life with Shells. It is not superficial, but deeply human to be alive to the beauty of the world around us and the luxury inherent in our sensory experience.
© 2019 by Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
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